Whatever your thoughts on it, an era has ended in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins’ next technical foul suspension will be served under a new flag, his basketball played while wearing a new jersey.
Typically accompanying the end of such a colorful era is that pesky reality: The beginning of a new era.
In Sacramento’s case, it’s one they’re almost historically badly prepared for among franchises who traded an All-Star level player in the recent past. These deals typically net multiple young pieces and picks: The Jazz got a veteran point guard replacement (Devin Harris), the third overall pick from the most recent draft (Derrick Favors), cash considerations and two first-round picks from the Nets for Deron Williams barely six years ago. Williams almost surely wasn’t as valuable a player in a vacuum as Cousins is today.
The Kings didn’t even approach half that haul, and while remaining contract length and Boogie’s notable flaws definitely played a role, it’s mostly their own fault. They could have had more in return at dozens of points prior to the actual trade, but the devastating combo of a meddlesome owner and an incompetent figurehead making major basketball decisions never allowed it to happen.
Time moves forward regardless. And while the short-term coffers for replacing even chunks of Cousins’ production are woefully short, there are a couple intriguing frontcourt names who at least make the future worth talking about.
The DeAndre Jordan comparisons are virtually unavoidable for Willie Cauley-Stein. And while this typically lazy shorthand misses some details just like all of them do, its origins are easy enough to see. Both spent at least a season under a well-known post bruiser (Zach Randolph spent most of Jordan’s rookie year in Los Angeles), but neither really boasted many of those kinds of skills to develop. Both entered the league as little but raw athletic freaks with NBA size and hops.
The current iterations look nothing alike as defenders, but the vague outlines are there. They’re most obvious when each guy blocks a shot; Cauley-Stein’s combination of pure hops plus great timing with his opponents’ jumps is when he looks most eerily similar to DeAndre:
Cauley-Stein has posted respectable SportVU figures as a rim protector to this point in the league. The timing similarities mostly end there, at least when comparing the present versions of both players.
Cauley-Stein is clearly a guy with years of experience letting his athleticism make up for deficiencies elsewhere in his game, a tactic all but a handful of NBA guys have to rid themselves of quickly. Watch him make a visibly unforgivable error by not even getting so much as a hand on his man for a box-out, but then erase it moments later with sheer freakiness.
That stuff may fly for now, but it won’t if Cauley-Stein is to ever playing meaningful minutes for a competitive team. Those couple beats of complete inactivity, even as he’s looking right at the guy he’s supposed to box out, are a microcosm of some of his biggest warts – it’s almost as if he feels like he needs to save up all his energy for those giant leaps. That’s not how things work in the NBA.
The effect is most visible in his rebounding numbers, which are horrific at both a team and individual level. He’s in the bottom 15 for both defensive rebounding percentage and overall rebounding percentage among 80 guys 6-foot-10 or taller, and borderline bottom-five among a smaller group of guys at least 7-foot or taller. The Kings have been about an average rebounding team on the year; they drop to among the league’s worst when Cauley-Stein is on the floor.
It’s tough to say how much of this is fixable given all the turmoil in town since he arrived, and maybe even tougher to say whether the mental leap Jordan made to go from a raw athlete to a defensive star is possible for Cauley-Stein. Most guys don’t have the passion for it.
Some of the indicators are decent. WCS swipes steals more often than Jordan at this age, and doesn’t foul as often. Jordan was two years younger when he entered the league, so these comparison numbers include two extra seasons for him.
This is usually an advantage to the younger guy no matter what, and probably is here too. Cauley-Stein’s extremely abnormal development cycle to this point could form an argument the other way, though. Jordan made his leap later than most, and it’s not out of the question for Cauley-Stein either if his true, healthy development only really began about two weeks ago (it might have).
If he can come anywhere close on the defensive end, the other side of the ball definitely contains some positive signs. Cauley-Stein is no bucket-getter, but he’s also nowhere near the liability Jordan was offensively at age 23, even despite DeAndre’s extra NBA years by that point.
Jordan’s turnover rate at that age was nearly double Cauley-Stein’s at this point in his career, and that came with a smaller team possession load than Willie has handled. Cauley-Stein is already in the mid-60s as a free-throw shooter, a level Jordan still hasn’t even approached in nine years. Likewise, he has dribble skills Jordan would kill for:
That’s a limited skill picture, of course. Cauley-Stein is already showing impressive chops as a roll man in pick-and-roll sets, with the hops and dexterity to dunk just about anything close to him, but he has a long way to go to match Jordan – maybe the most powerful player in the game in this role.
That’s really the rub as far as the Jordan comparisons go. There’s a real chance Cauley-Stein already has more complementary skills than the Clippers’ star right now, but Jordan isn’t great because of any of those things; he’s great because of how insanely good he is at the few things he does well, which just happen to be some of the most important skills a big man can have in the modern NBA. Cauley-Stein ever reaching those heights is unlikely, but perhaps not impossible, and whether he ever comes close will define his long-term success.
Toiling in even greater obscurity than Cauley-Stein is Skal Labissiere, the 28th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Once considered an elite blue chip prospect heading into Kentucky, Labissiere had one of the stranger freshman years for a high-ceiling Calipari product. He played just 16 minutes a night and was often overshadowed by bigger names, to the point where it surprised plenty of folks in the league when he even declared for the draft. The general consensus was that Labissiere could use another year of class, even in an NBA world where access to pro training and coaching typically far outweighs any stay-in-school benefits.
That consensus might still be accurate, but now Labissiere’s grading scale gets a whole lot steeper. He’s barely across the 100-minute barrier, and all the numbers in his orbit might as well be question marks.
Labissiere has just the faintest touch of “unicorn” DNA in him – a 6-foot-11 leaper with a big wingspan and some guard skills.
If Cauley-Stein is still struggling to find his feel for the game, Labissiere is still learning the very definition of the term. He has no idea where to be on the floor at a given moment, especially when it comes to defensive rotations and anything second-level on either end. Like a lot of guys in his position, he wants to shoot every time he gets the ball.
He’s also rail thin, listed at just 225 pounds for that 6-foot-11 frame. Labissiere has a long way to go improving his body, though his frame makes it feel easily possible. Until he gets there, he could benefit from a bit more subtlety when he tries to move guys who aren’t even as big as him anyway.
It’s virtually all potential for Labissiere at this point, but it’s tantalizing potential.
His shooting mechanics are fantastic for a guy his size, almost Anthony Davis-esque in that single area. He moves in a unique way that few bigs do, and should be a valuable commodity as a floor-runner once he gets his conditioning up to speed. He gets off the ground incredibly quickly, and it’s only stuff between the ears keeping him from real potential as a rim protector – he has the timing to do it, but is too easily baited into fouls and can’t read decoy actions for what they are just yet.
Labissiere is another of those guys who started playing basketball much later than any of his peers. This can be a false flag, but it certainly means more than nothing. The samples are way too small to judge from, but some of his shooting metrics and on-court team figures are already pointing in the right direction. He only needs a couple of these unicorn skills to hit home at the NBA level to be a successful player, which is what makes his type so salivating.
Between Cauley-Stein and Labissiere, there might be just enough to give Kings fans some modicum of hope for the future of their frontcourt.
Neither will ever duplicate Cousins’ production or even come close, but both could offer elements that fit the modern game more snugly – Cauley-Stein’s shot-blocking and rim-running, Labissiere’s guard skills, length and shooting. The Kings can push the pace more often with two strong bigs running the floor, especially if Labissiere ever adds enough strength to play center on his own and split the pair up more often.
(As an aside, for all his other flaws, it sure would have been fun to see these two get some real time under speedster coach George Karl. The Kings were too busy turning down much bigger Cousins offers and creating in-house drama for that to ever happen, though.)
They could form a pretty tantalizing duo together, too. Labissiere should have the lateral chops to stick with most small-ball power forwards these days, and if the strength ever comes around, he’d be a problem for those guys on the other side. He can already shoot over all of them, and if the shooting touch from deep becomes more than a hypothetical at some point, spacing won’t be an issue around Cauley-Stein.
The duo has played 71 minutes together this year. That’s not long enough to make any final calls, especially with the garbage time they saw before Cousins’ departure, but it’s long enough to note that their plus-16 net per-100-possession differential is pretty damn impressive. Labissiere has the best on court/off court splits on the team since Cousins left, another sign that’s still positive even if it’s due for a regression when the samples stabilize.
It’s early, and the Kings have earned less trust than any other NBA front office. There are still so many ways they could screw this up. Even if they don’t, there’s no guarantee Cauley-Stein or Labissiere provides any real long term excitement.
They’re easily the best of a very limited frontcourt lot, though, and all the drama might have caused a few folks in the league to look past these types in Sacramento. The next couple years will be a fascinating test of life after DeMarcus Cousins.
The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA
The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.
When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.
With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.
One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.
Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.
“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”
Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.
When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.
“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”
He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.
Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.
He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.
“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”
While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.
He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.
It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.
“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”
NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger
Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.
Playing For Something Bigger
The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.
By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.
“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”
Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.
“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.
“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”
Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.
“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”
With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.
“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”
With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.
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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed
James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.
Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.
2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.
“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”
Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.
“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”
While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.
“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.
Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.
“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”
Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.
“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.
Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.
“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.
On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.
Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.
“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.
Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.